I grew up in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Not inside the perimeter as one might say, I spent my childhood in the forests for hours at a time. My brother and I never grew bored of the endless possibilities and freedom we felt among the oaks: they are some of my most treasured memories. So, whenever we drove into Atlanta proper, I would watch the trees blur by as we encroached further to the city’s heart, well past the notorious highway 285 that encircles it. I always had a tree in sight no matter the distance we ventured into the city, and it always reminded me that home could extend and coincide with a vibrant metropolis rising ever closer in my sight. This always soothed me and put me at peace.
Not all is peaceful in the forest, however.
When protesting is rebranded as domestic terrorism
Since the quiet release of plans to demolish South River Forest (also known as the Old Atlanta Prison Farm) in 2021, protesters have been camping in the forest for months. Local organizations have banded together in order to advocate for the forest and resist police attempts to forcibly remove protesters. These organizations includeDefend the Atlanta Forest, Community Movement Builders, a Black-led nonprofit serving working-class and poor Black people, and the newly formed Stop Cop City group.
These organizations have intersecting goals that culminate in mutual aid to stop the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center known as “Cop City.” Leaders from the Community Movement Builders described the project as a “war base” wherein “police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements.”
One reason for the clear disdain for the project, aside from the historical implications discussed further below, is that the proposed site resides in unincorporated Dekalb county. Thus, those living in the neighborhood had no representatives on the council that approved the project in the first place. After public outrage at the lack of transparency and community engagement, the Atlanta council begrudgingly allowed public comments before the vote in September 2021. The council received 17 hours of recording on the proposal with 70% (or 12 hours) expressing opposition. The plan still passed 10-4.
Protesters have created makeshift barricades from mounds of illegally dumped material such as automobiles and tires in the forest. There is no water or electricity in the encampments so the protesters live very frugally to defend their beliefs. Access to water has continued to be an issue as police try to cut off supplies in an attempt to disperse the protesters and conduct regular raids and wreaking camps.
Confrontations with the police have only become more frequent: and with more serious consequences. At first, some activists found themselves with trespassing charges, but protests escalated on January 18th when demonstrator Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, a 26-year-old queer environmental activist, was lethally shot by Georgia state police.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation released a statement that Tortuguita, they/them, did not “comply with verbal commands” and allegedly shot a Georgia State Patrol trooper who is in stable condition. As a result of these alleged sequence of events, Tortuguita was shot over a dozen times by multiple different firearms and there is no body cam footage of the tragedy.
Now, the state is planning to convict 18 activists of domestic terrorism charges which holds a possible sentence of up to 35 years.
Local authorities have continued to falsely claim that organizations involved in resisting police development plans are “domestic violent extremists.” During the bail hearing for those arrested on Jan. 18th, bail was denied to four activists while two were given the unprecedented amount of $355,000, along with conditions for ankle monitors and curfews.
What once would have been considered a sit-in protest has now been twisted into “domestic terrorism.”
Considered a private-public venture between the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the 85 acres slotted to be turned into a police compound would cost $90 million to construct. Renderings of the project include indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, an auditorium, classrooms, a space dedicated to explosion tests, and a mock miniature city to practice high-speed chases and burn-building training.
The Public Safety Training Academy Advisory Council was formed under the previous mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, on Jan. 4, 2021. According to investigative work conducted by the Mainline, a woman-led independent magazine based in Atlanta, the council was comprised entirely by “government, police, and fire officials, including Chief Operating Officer Jon Keen and APF CEO and President Dave Wilkinson.”
After meeting on Jan. 22, Feb. 12, March 4, and March 26 in 2021, the plan that would become Ordinance No. 21-O-0367 (Cop City) was introduced on June 7th the same year. It was passed shortly thereafter on September 8th, 2021.
Two-thirds of the costs ($60 million) to construct Cop City are coming from corporate donors such as Chick-Fil-A and Delta. Otherwise, despite the desperate and apparent need for affordable housing, food, and other life-affirming infrastructures, the remaining third of the costs ($30 million) is to be paid by taxpayers.
The land is currently under lease to the Atlanta Police Foundation for only $10 a year (see page 10) and construction started this February.
Hidden racist history of the forest continued with the development of Cop City
Before South River Forest became known as such, located in the bustling perimeter of Atlanta’s sprawling metropolitan, the land belonged to the Muscogee Creek nation. In the early 19th century, these people were forcibly removed from their land by ever-encroaching settlers on the East coast and South Florida.
In 1821, Georgia held its fourth land lottery, dividing the Muscogee Creek home into 202.5 acres. Between an 11-year period (1827-38), 23,000 Muscogee were driven from their lands by white, enslaving men.
Soon after, the land became a part of a complex of plantations that exploited the labor of enslaved people. The proposed South River Forest zone contained at least 9 plantations. The names of these plantation owners will not be given here, however, to learn some of the known names of enslaved peoples residing in this area, please read this article.
Eventually, this land was sold to the city of Atlanta which was then used as a city-run forced agricultural labor prison that ran uninterrupted from 1920 to nearly 1990, being officially shuttered in 1995.
Originally, the land became the first “honor farm” in the state, allowing trustworthy prisoners and those with minor infractions to work off their time. This was only a mask for a new form of slavery, cruelty, and so much worse as the Prison Farm ran, without clear archived records, for decades. The last official record comes from a 1971 health inspection record.
There are no official reports on the number of people who died under the inhumane working conditions, but there is a widespread belief that some inmates who died were buried in unmarked graves though none have been found yet. A little of what we know is troubling at best and stomach-churning at worse. In 1941, a prison superintendent reported housing 9 Black prisoners in a 12 ft space, alongside numerous reports of sexual violence from guards, and inmate deaths, often under suspect circumstances.
In one example, prisoners were allowed to handle Sulfotep, which was only contained in unlabeled squeeze bottles and is an extremely toxic chemical pesticide only supposed to be dispensed by licensed company personnel. We know this because of the death of Leroy Horton, who was serving only a 20-day sentence, and who had been sprayed with the substance by another inmate at his own request after contracting lice at the prison. He served only four days of his sentence and died three weeks later due to these gross malpractices in safety protocols and sanitary living conditions.
Now, the land is once more under contract by state policing structures.
Benefits and necessity of urban forests
Atlanta has been called the “City in the Forest” for its vast canopy coverage and abundance of trees within the city. That is because Atlanta leads the nation and major metropolitan cities in canopy coverage at 47.9 percent.
The canopy is not distributed evenly across the city, rather it decreases as one approaches downtown and increases as one approaches the outskirts, making the presence of South River Forest within the perimeter that much more extraordinary. Researchers also found that the lowest canopy coverage was along transportation corridors, but was over 90 percent along stream corridors and in nature preserves.
More and more cities are tracking the number of trees they foster because of the multitude of benefits they offer. This ranges from combatting urban heat island effects, reducing heating and cooling costs overall, providing blue/green space which improves mental health, acting as stormwater management to control flooding, and sequestering carbon thus improving air quality, combatting carbon emissions and climate change.
Results from a Montgomery, Alabama analysis found that urban forests removed 3.2 million lbs of pollutants from the air annually which is valued at $7.9 million. Moreover, the urban forest sequestered 11,263 tons of carbon each year and stored a total of 1.45 million tons of carbon.
In Atlanta, climate scientists have warned that destroying woods will make the city more susceptible to flooding and dangerously hot temperatures. Other concerns over the South River Forest area are worsened air quality due to construction, fires, and weapons training. In this mainly Black part of metro Atlanta, people have been historically neglected. According to the US Census, 75 percent of the neighborhoods near the forest are Black and suffer from high poverty rates and health challenges like diabetes and asthma.
The Sierra Club Georgia Chapter issued a statement on behalf of Black and Latinx community members, who have long been victims of environmental injustice and pollution within the city, stating their vehement opposition to the destruction of the South River Forest.
Intersections of social ecology and human rights
In recent years, there has been a burgeoning movement to connect ecological and social issues together: known as the theory of social ecology. Murray Bookchin, a pioneer in the environmental movement and social theorist, has stated that ecological problems stem from social issues which in turn are exacerbated by ecological destruction. This vicious cycle has become the driving force behind new movements to address climate change and foster more awareness of the interdependence of people and their environment. Without this widespread recognition, social-ecological theorists have argued that hierarchical societies that rely on violent institutions like prisons and police are more likely to treat their environment and people as entities to be dominated, conquered, and/or controlled.
In the case of the South River Forest/Cop City contention, this theoretical framework can be easily illustrated, alongside numerous normative international human rights standards.
Firstly, the plans to develop Cop City were done so surreptitiously; there were no public announcements on the proposal before voting, nor were community members and organizations/specialists asked to participate in the development of the plans. Secondly, the council that approved the plans was not elected by anyone from the community in which the Cop City construction will take place. These are prime disregards for political and public representation: foundational blocks for democratic governance, rule of law, and social inclusion. From the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR):
“Participation rights are inseparably linked to other human rights such as the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression and the rights to education and to information.”
Next, the economic and social human rights of the South River Forest community are also being threatened. Economically, once again without any representative input, ⅓ of the cost ($30 million) is to be paid by taxpayers. Socially, each human has the right “to social protection, to an adequate standard of living and to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental well-being.” These rights are being threatened by the gross environmental degradation of a low-income community that already suffers from health conditions such as asthma. Moreover, it has long been scientifically proven that blue-green space increases one’s mental health 一 an explicitly aforementioned social right.
Lastly, we come to environmental rights. The task of succinctly explaining them can be a lot, I encourage readers to look on our site in the “Environmental Rights” category for even more insight. However, in this case, where the environment is the key concern of protest, one should return again to social-ecological theory. In human rights, the right to health found in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,cannot be fully achieved in an environment that contributes to worse air quality, mental health, and dangerously high temperatures. The right to security, found in Article 3 of the UDHR, cannot be achieved in an environment where the community is under threat of more flooding, subject to burns, bombs, and shooting daily, and lives in fear of violence. And this can go on and on.
Ultimately, this issue is complex and multifaceted: and it deserves public and civilian representation and more time than 7 months of deliberation to destroy a forest hundreds of years old.
The first line of the first amendment in the Constitution of the United States, also known as the Establishment clause, asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This clause, although seemingly simple in nature, has been the root of many judicial battles throughout the United States’ history. Religion, as a human right, has always been a topic of political debate.
One might inquire as to why this is the case: what makes the freedom of religion such a sensitive topic? In this blog, I seek to answer this question by outlining fundamental cases which have shaped how our legislators interpret our right to religion. Moreover, this blog shall conclude with how our fundamental right to religion is being interpreted today, as well as what is potentially in store for religious interpretation in the future.
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) | Introduction of the Lemon Test
Our journey begins in 1971, with the landmark Supreme Court Case of Lemon v. Kurtzman which involved the states of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The issue materialized when both of the aforementioned states decided to introduce legislation that would use taxpayer money to fund church-affiliated schools. In doing so, the government funds would pay for teacher salaries, textbook costs, and many other educational materials. Funding church-affiliated schools could be construed as a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court followed this logic, and with an 8-1 ruling, they decided to strike down the legislation passed by Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, no longer allowing state funds to go to church-affiliated schools.
What is particularly remarkable about this case is that it formally introduced the so-called Lemon Test, a judicial test constructed to see if legislation defies the Establishment Clause. The Lemon Test has three ways to test and see if a piece of legislation defies the clause:
The piece of legislation must have a secular purpose;
The piece of legislation must not advance or prohibit the practice of religion;
The piece of legislation must not force the government into “excessive entanglement” with religious affairs.
If a piece of legislation passes the Lemon Test, then it does not defy the Establishment Clause and can proceed to further scrutiny. That is, the legislation will be evaluated to see if aligns with the other amendments. With these three prongs noted, one can see how easily Lemon v. Kurtzman would have failed the Lemon Test.
Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) | Application of the Lemon Test
Wallace v. Jaffree, a case that took place in the state of Alabama, is another landmark Supreme Court case involving a dispute in legislation around religion. In 1981, Alabama decided to introduce legislation that mandated a 1-minute moment of silence at the start of class in all public schools. Although, ostensibly, the legislators claimed that this moment of silence could be used either for reflection or prayers, the legislation’s intent was to create an opportunity for students to pray before school started.
This decision naturally upset many non-religious parents, and multiple lawsuits soon followed, climbing their way up all the way to the Supreme Court. Throughout this process, the Alabama legislators argued that this bill does not defy the Establishment Clause, as the moment of silence can be used in any way that pleases the student— not necessarily just for prayer. However, the fault in this is that the introduction of the bill was done to allow students to pray, not to give them a moment of silence; thus, this bill failed the Lemon Test’s first prong as it did not have a secular purpose. In a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court held that the bill defies the Establishment Clause.
Oregon v. Smith (1990) | Introduction of RFRA
This case, unlike the aforementioned ones, has a bit more nuance to it and led to a wide range of implications. This case is the primary reason Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which is one of the most bipartisan pieces of legislation, having passed the House unanimously and the Senate 97-3.
In Oregon v. Smith, two people, who both worked at a drug rehabilitation center, were fired due to having consumed peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The issue at hand, however, is that their consumption of peyote was done during a sacred religious practice. This case did not make it to the Supreme Court because the drug rehabilitation center fired them (as the center very much can fire whoever they please — they are a private entity); it made it to the Supreme Court because after they were fired, these two individuals sought unemployment benefits and were denied due to being fired for consuming drugs, which is considered “workplace misconduct.”
However, unlike the previous cases, the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of the appellants. The Court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that since the denial of unemployment benefits due to workplace misconduct is a rule of general application (meaning it does not specifically target any people or religious practice), it is constitutional.
However, as one might conclude, many did not like this outcome. Therefore, as aforementioned, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to clarify some of the issues raised by Oregon v. Smith. The first clause of RFRA states its purpose, saying that it aims to prohibit “any agency, department, or official of the United States or any State (the government) from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
This first clause seeks to prohibit exactly what was the outcome in Oregon v. Smith, but it also comes with some limitations. That is, Congress is free to burden one’s exercise of religion if (1) doing so will further a compelling government interest; and, (2) doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. The introduction of this incredibly bipartisan bill, as we will shortly explore, has some interesting implications.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) | Application of RFRA
In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, we see the RFRA being put to use which leads to an interesting implication from the outcome of this case. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby sprouted from one of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), namely, that all nonexempt employers are legally required to offer their employees health coverage and benefits, including contraceptives, some of which stop an egg from fertilizing. Before progressing with the case, we ought to make note that some employers, primarily religious institutions such as churches, are exempt from the ACA.
Hobby Lobby, a crafts company, is a tightly-owned company, meaning that there are only a few number of people who own the company. All of these owners, moreover, do not want to comply with the ACA since they believe life begins at conception and to thereby provide their employees with free contraceptives would go against their religious beliefs. However, if a company does not comply with the ACA, it would have to pay a fee per employee. For Hobby Lobby, the total cost would amount to about $475 million per year.
Hobby Lobby was conflicted about whether they should go against their religious beliefs and supply their employees with contraceptives or instead pay $475 million a year and adhere to their religious stance. Due to this ethical dilemma, Hobby Lobby decided to sue the Department of Human Health Services (those who implemented the ADA), and the case made its way up to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby cited RFRA, stating that the ACA mandate does not comply with RFRA’s second clause. They argued that forcing Hobby Lobby to offer its employees contraceptives is not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government decision. Rather, Hobby Lobby stated that they, like religious institutions, should be exempt from the ACA, as that is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest (health care for employees). The employees of companies who are exempt from the ACA have their health care paid for by taxes.
The Supreme Court agreed with Hobby Lobby. By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby is correct—the least restrictive means indeed is making Hobby Lobby an exempt company, thereby allowing governmental taxes to pay for the health care of their employees.
What is remarkable about this case is its implication that the Supreme Court stated that the best course of action to resolve a religious dispute over health care is to simply allow the government to fund health care. One might argue, then, that the Supreme Court is hinting toward universal health care, as they view that as the least restrictive means.
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022) | Abandonment of the Lemon Test
The last case we shall discuss is one that has been all over the media recently:Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. In this case, a high school football coach decided to kneel and pray before and after games. The school district feared that his actions would violate the Establishment Clause, so they asked him to stop. When he did not, they fired him.
Claiming his first amendment right to the freedom of religion was violated, he sued the school. The lawsuit eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, and, by a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled in the coach’s favor, stating that he was not complicit in praying since he did it during post-game periods when people were free to do as they pleased.
However, something remarkable also happened in this case: the Supreme Court decided to stop using the Lemon Test, which has been in practice since 1971. Instead of the Lemon Test, the Court stated that they will decide disputes over the Establishment Clause by “accor[ding] with [what] histor[ically] and faithfully reflec[ts] the understanding of the Founding Fathers.”
What this means, we do not yet know, as this is yet another new change by the Supreme Court. Throughout history, the Lemon Test has proved itself to be a great way of settling legislative disputes, so one could only wonder why the Supreme Court decided against it.
As I showed with this blog post, cases revolving around religious freedom are by no means simple, but the courts, thankfully, have historically always ruled in favor of the Establishment Clause, never seeking to subdue religious freedom.
However, after the abandonment of the Lemon Test in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, it is clear that the Supreme Court is planning on interpreting the Establishment Clause differently than they have had since 1971. What this means for upcoming cases, we have yet to find out. However, what we do know is that religious freedom, despite how tricky it might be at times, should remain a human right.
Even though 1 in 6 people around the world experience disabilities, they are often among the forgotten groups within our society. While people with disabilities today are living under better conditions than their ancestors, there is still a lot of progress needed to be had to ensure that people with disabilities can lead a life of dignity and independence, free from the stigma and failures of society’s ableist mindset. In this two-part blog, we will focus specifically on children with disabilities within the American education system, but before that, it is necessary to frame the historical context surrounding the American education system, and how disability in America has been treated as a whole. As a result, part one of this series will focus on setting the historical context, exploring the American Education System as well as the treatment of people with disabilities throughout American history. The second part of this series will focus on exploring the contemporary issues faced by children with disabilities and their families within the American Education System and learn about a human rights framework for disability rights.
History of America’s Education System
The Unequal Distribution of Knowledge
Since the founding of this country is rooted in capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, many groups of people have been historically denied access to education. Traditionally, children from poor backgrounds were expected to help their families on the farm or work in their family businesses to make ends meet. As the industrial revolution took hold, child labor transferred from the farms to the factories, and many industries, such as the textile industry preferred to employ children to exploit their minuscule features. The petite features of the children came into use when they were needed to get into tight spots, or when operating machinery that required smaller extremities. Child labor in America was not outlawed until 1938, meaning that many children from poor families were illiterate and disadvantaged in comparison with children from wealthier families, who could afford to educate their children instead.
In addition to the absence of child labor laws, the patriarchal structure of American society deemed it more important for boys and men to be educated than their female counterparts. While poor families were denied access to education on the whole, even among wealthier families, the education of boys was prioritized over educating women. Women were expected to be homemakers and child-bearers in the private sphere, and the public sphere was reserved for their male counterparts. Many women were denied access to education, were not permitted to participate in politics and were limited to feminine jobs (such as teaching, nursing, and domestic work) when they did participate economically in the larger society. It was not until the 19th century that women were given more flexibility in their pursuit of higher education. Of course, not all women shared the same experiences, and white women were better able to receive education than women from other races, and as expressed earlier, wealthier women had more opportunities to educate themselves than did women living in poverty.
Furthermore, the foundations of white supremacy upon which America was built denied people of color access to education. Education provides the key to empowerment, and the status quo did not want to empower those they deemed to be inferior. Due to the hierarchical nature of this supremacist mindset, people from different groups were “dealt with” in different manners. For immigrants, access to education depended on their country of origin. Some immigrants, such as those from Asian countries, were barred from receiving education in America until the 1880s and were instead used for hard labor, like constructing railroads. European immigrants, on the other hand, were well-received by many in America, (with the exception of the Irish), and were granted many of the rights shared by American citizens at the time. There was however, a difference in treatment between the Old immigrants, (which were members from wealthier backgrounds with skills and education levels from the Southern and Eastern parts of Europe that came to America in the early 1800s), and the New immigrants (who were mostly impoverished, unskilled laborers from Western and Northern Europe who migrated to America in the late 1800s).
In addition to immigrants, the indigenous population of America also received access to education with a different approach. In an attempt to force them to forget their rich cultural histories and erase the cultural differences between the indigenous population and the larger (White) American society, children from different tribes were kidnapped and forced into boarding schools where they would learn to be assimilated into the American culture. Indigenous children were punished for speaking their language, engaging in their cultural practices, or even wearing cultural clothing (whether it was casually or for cultural practices). This is one of the reasons that today when people appropriate Native American culture (and attire), it can be very insulting, as they were punished for practicing their culture and wearing their traditional clothing.
Furthermore, during the enslavement of African Americans, who were deemed to be on the lowest level on this racial hierarchy, access to literacy was denied to them and outlawed, making it punishable by law for African Americans to be literate. This law was another way in which racist leaders of the time maintained control over the enslaved population. Following this period, there were many racist laws and social barriers to education for African Americans over time, and it was not until the famous passage of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that African Americans were given the right to equal education. With all that being said, there is still an ongoing struggle to bring equity, inclusion, and diversity into the American education system.
There can be a whole blog dedicated to the housing market, its impacts on funding for the local schools, and how this influences the level of education the children within those districts experience. As mentioned in previous blogs on similar topics, this funding practice tied to the housing market is, yet another way racism has seeped into American institutions. Transforming the American Education system into a more inclusive one will be a difficult fight ahead, as cries against teachings with an anti-racist approach are molding the current curriculum within the education system today.
The Historical Struggle to Secure the Right to Education for People with Disabilities
This exclusive approach to education also historically denied access to disabled individuals as well. American society has been structured with an ableist mindset, and people with disabilities have been stigmatized and marginalized by the larger society. In the past, many states prevented children with disabilities from attending school, choosing to place them in state institutions instead. Some wealthier families with disabled children could afford to home-school them, but the rest of the children with disabilities within society were not given that opportunity.
Even after education was required for all children, many states refused to provide accommodations for their students with disabilities, and the responsibility of securing access and mobility was placed on the children and their families, rather than the state. Judith Heumann, a well-known disability rights activist, was denied entry to her elementary school during the 1950s because the school district deemed her a “fire hazard” for being mobility impaired and having to use a wheelchair. It was not until the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHC; later known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA) in 1975 that educational rights were protected for groups in need, including children with disabilities. While education access was protected under this law, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was needed to ensure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination in all aspects of society.
The Horrific History of Disability in America
How were People with Disabilities Viewed in the Past, and how has that changed today?
Understanding the historical context behind the American education system is only one part of this conversation. Outlining the lens through which disability is viewed today, and in the past, is necessary to comprehend the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system. Today, people with disabilities are viewed in four ways. For one, following the traditional views of disability, most people with disabilities are simply ignored by society, both as a population, as well as systemically. You can see this is the case by simply looking at some of the ableist framings of our infrastructure. Needless to say, being an invisible group within society comes with its own challenges.
Another common way society approaches people with disabilities is to view them as the “super-crip” (which is extremely insulting) and look at their achievements as “inspirational.” People who believe this highlight people with disabilities in a supernatural sense, similar to how many African Americans were portrayed as supernatural beings with superhuman strength and abilities. This troupe was not helpful to the African American community then, and it is not helpful to people with disabilities today. Some may argue that this troupe seems to be a positive outlook of the group, but upon closer inspection, it is important to recognize the stress and burden of success this places on people with disabilities to feel accepted by society. It also encourages the mindset that these people who achieve extraordinary things are superhuman and that their achievements are highlighted because there is a general conception that this is abnormal for the group. Additionally, for a person with disabilities, it can be insulting and demeaning to hear the phrase, “if a person with a disability can achieve this, so can you!”
Another tactless way in which people with disabilities are regarded, as inferior to the rest of the population. Many able-bodied individuals either view them as a burden to society or simply objects to be pitied. This can have the impact of treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens and making them feel as if they are lacking in some way or another. Those who show pity toward people with disabilities may have good intentions, but their actions treat people with disabilities as victims of fate, rather than with dignity and humanity.
Finally, some people within society treat people with disabilities as if they have undergone a tragic event (whatever led to their disability), and people require “saving” or “treatment” to be “cured” of their ailments. This too is not the case. People with disabilities adapt to living their lives with their disabilities, and they don’t require anyone to “save” them from their disabilities. This is extremely insulting and rude to even think that, and it has the same connotations as would a “white-savior complex” within the context of race. The underlying belief in both of these situations is that the person doing the “saving” believes that the person that needs to be “saved” cannot do this for themselves and that they require the help of the “savior”.
While it is important to understand the contemporary views of people with disabilities, it is equally relevant to familiarize ourselves with the ways in which people with disabilities have been treated in America in the past. Until the 19th century, people with disabilities were separated from participating with the rest of the larger society. During colonial times in America, people with disabilities were treated in a similar light as the Salem witches, either burned or hanged. Others viewed disability as a sign of God’s disapproval of the colonists, and people with disabilities were treated as though they were possessed. Still, others felt that people with disabilities were a disgrace to their family and their community, and many were shunned from their homes. The larger society lumped criminals, poor people, mentally ill people, and people with disabilities under the same roof, labeling them as outsiders. This practice evolved into the many horror stories that we may be familiar with today regarding asylums and their treatment of their patients. An important note: as it is with other American institutions, racism, and sexism disproportionately impact the lives of people of color and women within these institutions, and this translates into how they are perceived and treated by the larger society as well. This remains true for people with disabilities with identities that are not aligned with the patriarchal, white society.
The mistreatment and abuse of people with disabilities within asylums
People with disabilities, along with other vulnerable groups that were stigmatized by society, were pushed into asylums. These were large “hospitals” stocked with medical equipment and personnel in which the goal was to provide care and treatment for the patients that resided within these asylums. The reason I placed hospitals in quotations is that many of these asylums were simply places to house all the people society did not want. These patients were experimented on, abused, neglected, and had almost no rights to defend themselves. Some patients that were from wealthy families were able to be treated at home, but others that came from meager backgrounds were not as fortunate. Many of the staff working within these institutions were unsympathetic towards their patients, feeling burdened by their very existence. Many people (within the institution and outside in the larger society) believed that people with mental illness and people with disabilities were “acting out” on purpose, to make life harder for those “upstanding” citizens of society. Many of the patients were misdiagnosed, and the institutions went from trying to care for the patients to “cure” the patients of their disabilities. The stigmatization of these groups within the asylums meant that their needs and wants were ignored. In addition to that, because it did not require a professional recommendation from a medical practitioner to admit patients into the asylums, many people were wrongly admitted to these institutions (because of personal grudges or disapproval of their behavior) for years without the right to defend and protect themselves.
Of course, it is not wise to lump every institution together and generalize about their treatment of their patients. While some were genuinely trying to take care of their wards and research ways to help “cure” them, others were less sympathetic to the plights of people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. For one, similar to the issues that American prisons face today, asylums were overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded. This meant that each individual residing within the institutions was not given the personal care they required, and instead, they were all lumped into groups to receive generalized treatments. This was problematic in so many ways, but the most obvious is that disability takes many shapes and forms, and each individual had different needs that had to be met. Approaching a group of people with disabilities with generalized treatments meant that the doctors and nurses never took time to understand the details of each person’s disability, much less how best to approach them. As a matter of fact, because many believed disabilities to be a spiritual problem (a person being possessed by the devil), early “treatments” for mental illnesses and disabilities came in the form of exorcisms. When medical professionals finally were able to understand that this was a bodily illness, not a spiritual one, they then proceeded to conduct various experiments on the patients without having any knowledge of how to treat their patients. This is where the tortures began.
Medical personnel proposed many treatments to “cure” people with disabilities, including inhumane procedures that involved drilling holes into the patient’s skull in an attempt to bleed out the disease in question. While it is easy to judge in retrospect, in the beginning, many of the doctors truly believed that they were “curing” their patients with the various treatments they provided them, even as many recognized the inhumane nature of their treatments.
Other various treatments were administered to the patients, which can be defined as abusive and torturous today. Many women with disabilities were abused sexually, both by other patients and their caregivers. In addition to these incidents, many states (through the support of the law) practiced forced sterilization of disabled individuals in these institutions. The justification for this practice was expressed as cleansing humanity of these various illnesses and disabilities. Inspired by the American practice of eugenics, Nazi Germany expanded upon this practice to include everyone that did not fit their description of the “Aryan” race. To this day, America has not acknowledged this practice, and forced sterilization continues to be legal in the United States because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1927. The case in question, Buck v. Bell maintained that the sterilization of Carrie Buck (a woman who was raped and accused of “feeblemindedness”) was not in violation of the Constitution. This ruling permitted the forced sterilization of thousands of people with disabilities and other traits deemed “unwanted” by the general public. While the Supreme Court has outlawed forced sterilization as a form of punishment, it has never overturned its ruling made in Buck v. Bell. As a result, this practice is technically still supported within the legal framework.
With very little funding, the living conditions within the institutions also proved to be dangerous. The asylum itself was built to be uncomfortable because there was a belief that comfortable living would encourage patients to stay there forever. This meant that there was poor insulation, keeping the buildings cold. Due to the shortage of staff, many patients were restrained or locked up, while others were neglected altogether. These conditions, along with the “treatments” they received, exacerbated the patients’ conditions and were detrimental to their mental and physical health. Finally, as a result of society’s exclusion of this vulnerable population, many people outside of the institutions were not aware of what was taking place within. The patients inside these asylums were all but forgotten, invisible to the rest of society.
In an attempt to expose these terrible conditions to the larger society, journalists and activists spread accounts about the conditions within the asylums. Many were able to do this by investigating these institutions firsthand, and images (and videos) of the ill-treatment of the patients began circulating. As people started learning about the horrific conditions in which their loved ones were being kept in, the asylums faced a lot of backlashes. Amid all the backlash, in 1946, President Truman passed the National Mental Health Act to begin research on neurological issues. It would not be until 1955, however, that things changed drastically for those suffering from mental illnesses. Thorazine, a psychoactive medication that was introduced as a way to treat mental illness, and the population within the institutions peaked around this time. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to take a community-based approach to treat mental health, but it lacked the funding to progress in any substantial way. In 1981, Ronald Reagan takes a drastic step to stop government funding to help with mental health, forcing institutions to close their doors and leaving the patients on the streets.
This dramatic change provided no cushion for the patients to fall on, and much experienced homelessness as a result. With nowhere to go and no help from the government, many people with disabilities lost their lives because of this policy shift. These individuals never received any compensation for their ill-treatment, nor were they given any transitional housing or aid to help restart their lives. Of those that did not end up dead, many people with disabilities were imprisoned for causing “public disturbances.” Unfortunately, this practice continues to exist today, especially impacting people of color, and people living in poverty disproportionately. Of course, the imprisonment of people suffering from physical and mental disabilities exacerbated their conditions, and the lack of care and treatment resulted in many deaths. With nowhere to go, and no rights to protect this vulnerable population, people with disabilities continued to suffer due to systemic failures.
The movement for disability rights
Eventually, following the lead set by the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements such as the Women’s Rights movement, and the sexual revolution that fought for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities came together to stand against discrimination toward them from the larger society, and fight for their rights to exist and prosper like any other groups. People with disabilities wanted to challenge the practice of institutionalization and employed many of the tactics that were used during the Civil Rights Movement. They staged sit-ins in governmental buildings like the FBI building, challenged the mobility norms of society by blocking busses (that denied accessibility to people with disabilities) from moving, and they protested on the streets, able-bodied allies and people with disabilities alike, fighting for their rights.
People with disabilities were also exhausted with the ableist society they lived in and began to challenge the many barriers within society that kept them from living as independent individuals. They did not need someone to hold the doors for them; they wanted the doors to remain open automatically long enough for them to pass through. They wanted accessible sidewalks on which they could move their wheelchairs, walkers, and other walking devices (if applied) safely, and independently, without having to depend on others to take care of them. People with disabilities and their caregivers began to challenge the largely held view by society that people with disabilities were a burden to society. They argued that societal barriers made them dependent on others and implementing disability-friendly solutions can provide the community with the independence to live their lives freely.
In 1973, with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, specifically, Section 504, people with disabilities, for the first time, were protected by law from being discriminated against. This act recognized that the many issues faced by people with disabilities, such as unemployment, transportation, and accessibility issues, were not the fault of the person with the disability, but rather, a result of society’s shortcomings in failing to provide accessible services to the group. While this was a major win for this community, this law only applied to those who accepted federal funding, meaning that the private sector, and even many of the public sector, could still discriminate against people with disabilities. Following the passage of this act, many people with disabilities were instrumental in ensuring its enforcement. Many of the sit-ins referred to above happened at this time, as an attempt to keep governmental offices accountable. Protestors would block the entrances into the government buildings, or stay in the buildings past close time, refusing to leave until the necessary changes were agreed to be made to the buildings (such as including ramps to the building or elevators inside the buildings) to meet the Section 504 requirements. This continued until Ronald Reagan issued a task force to stop the regulatory attempts made by supporters of Section 504, and the protections secured by the IDEA, an act that protected the educational rights of children with disabilities. Over the following years, his decision resulted in hundreds of frustrated parents and people with disabilities alike questioning the justification for stopping the regulatory actions of Section 504. This backlash, accompanied by the tireless leaders of the community meeting with White House officials, ended in Reagan reversing his crackdown on Section 504, allowing regulations to continue on businesses that refused to incorporate practices outlined in Section 504.
Additionally, following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, people with disabilities, along with other protected groups such as race, gender (and sex), and religion, were protected from discrimination in housing. The first passage of the act initially only included race, religion, national origin, and color, as the protected groups. It was not until 1974 when sex (and gender) were added to this list, and not until 1988 when the disability community was added. Still, this act was especially important for people with disabilities because it required home builders to provide reasonable accommodations necessary for the inhabitants to live comfortably and move around the housing unit.
Following these many small victories came the biggest one of them all, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (ADA). This law was the first general law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in all aspects of society, including in housing, employment, healthcare, transportation, and many other social services that impacted the lives of this protected group. The passage of the ADA focused on four main themes: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Full participation focuses on the ability of people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of their lives, including having access to transportation, entering and exit buildings without issues, being able to vote on inaccessible sites, and enjoying life without social barriers that prevent them from being able to do so. Equal opportunity centers on being able to be employed without facing discrimination due to their disability and being able to take advantage of other such opportunities free of discrimination. Independent living brings attention to the ableist framework that society is structured in and recognizes the need for a more disability-friendly society, with access to handrails, ramps, curb cuts, and other options such as disability-friendly online sites (that for example, speak the menu out for you if you are a person with visual imparities) to raise the living standards for people with disabilities. The basis of this pillar is to empower people with disabilities with tools they can use for themselves in order to live independent life. Finally, the economic self-sufficiency piece mainly concentrates on the economic security of people with disabilities. This includes access and accommodations to receive higher education, better employment opportunities (including training, transportation access, and mobility within the workspace), and other such necessities to promote economic self-sufficiency within the disability community.
Many communities across the United States are brainstorming innovative ways to be more inclusive, but we are far from being a fully inclusive society. People with disabilities remain among the invisible groups within society, not because their advocates are not loud enough, but because their cries are being ignored by lawmakers and their local representatives. Globally, the United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD) in 2006, working to shift the mindset of people’s views on disability as a whole, as well as protect and promote the rights of individuals with disabilities by empowering them to fully participate in society with the dignity and humanity they deserve.
While this blog mainly focused on the historical context of the American Education System and the perception of people with disabilities in the past and today, the next blog will focus more on the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system today, the many challenges they continue to face, how the pandemic has impacted their learning and development, and the human rights framework necessary for disability rights to do what we can to be more inclusive and less ableist as a society.
With the start of quarantine in 2020 and the rise of the social media app TikTok, many activist movements come to light and shed knowledge on the horrific injustices. One of the most prevalent examples is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020 and the period following it; it has become crucial for individuals to speak out against injustices. In a sense, it is part of “cancel culture” not to speak out, or if you speak out on the incorrect issues. As important as that is, it has been observed that many liberals and progressives only stand against injustices for specific issues. In a way, it involves choosing who is more worthy of having their rights protected. This may seem like an extreme notion or definition of selective activism, but it is essential.
The idea of selective activism was first introduced to me while reading “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics” by Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick. Even though this book specifically regarded the issues of Palestine and Israel, it dealt with an extremely important point and message; when we label ourselves as activists, we must be activists in all important issues. This is not to say that selective activism is always done intentionally; sometimes, it is by mere mistake or lack of knowledge on various issues. Everyone is guilty of this. Sadly, there are so many human rights injustices in our world that it is impossible to dedicate all your time to fighting for them. But what one can do in these situations is to be cautious of all issues at their prevalent times.
What is Selective Activism?
Selective activism is closely linked to the idea of selective hearing, only hearing what you want to hear. Its advocating for specific things only. The best way I have found to explain selective activism is through this quote in the book: “progressives and liberals who oppose regressive policies on immigration, racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and other issues must extend these core principles to the oppression of others.” Some questions arise when speaking of selective activism; how do we choose? What makes one cause more worthy than another? The answer is simple. There are always causes that we feel especially connected to and that we constantly advocate for, but what is essential is that if one labels themselves as an activist, progressive, or humanitarian, then this needs to apply to all issues. If one is going to protest the killing of innocent individuals in America, then the same support must be shown to women in Iran. If one is going to advocate for Ukrainian refugees, then activism must be shown to MENA refugees and those whose countries are still under occupation. Ravyen Monroe, a writer for Affinity Magazine, explained it perfectly: “You can’t be an activist but stop advocating for certain groups when you get mad. You don’t get to pick and choose who is worthy of respect and who gets degraded by terms that have oppressed them for centuries…That’s not how activism works.”
Instances of Selective Activism
The most recent example of selective activism can be the world’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis compared to refugees from the MENA region (see blog on this topic here). Although what Ukrainians are going through is indescribable and is seen as an urgent humanitarian crisis, the problem is selective activism. The attention given to Ukrainian refugees was commendable. They were given the necessary aid and protection as needed. However, the same support was not extended to refugees from the MENA region. An Armenian writer explained this as a betrayal and stated, “it hurts to feel that certain people are prioritized in the eyes of the media, and thus, the world.” This type of selective activism is not limited to political activism and can also be seen in environmental activism. For instance, climate change activists. Many took the stance against using plastic and began investing in metal straws once it became a trend but continued to utilize plastic throughout their lives.
Impact of Selective Activism
Selective Activism has negative implications and effects on the world, like the forgotten issue of the Yemen crisis, Islamophobia in European countries, refugees, etc. The list is long and never-ending. Despite the many important human rights crises in the world, some face extreme critical conditions that tend to be forgotten. Many become activists when issues are trending, yet will forget about them once they are off the mainstream media. As illustrated, it is not possible for one to advocate for every cause or injustice. But, if one labels themselves an activist and sees many prevalent issues but ignores it, then that is participating in selective activism. An inclusive solution would be to continue the fight for human rights for all and to stay educated. If there are specific humanitarian causes important to one, make sure you are advocating for all the individuals affected. Below are books, movies, and resources that expand upon the notion of selective activism.
“Except for Palestine: Limit on Progressive Politics” By Marc Lamont Hill & Mitchell Plitnick (This book opened my eyes to the idea of selective activism and its existence)
Many movies educate one on the many humanitarian causes. My favorites are:
People filled the plaza in the place where all three powers of governance meet in Brasília, Brazil. A sea of green and gold as hundreds of citizens displayed their nation’s colors before entering the seats of power, destroying property, and overpowering the police. People climbed to the roof of the Congress building and unfurled a flag that read “intervention.”
Raging riots in the wake of a new presidency
On January 8th, 2023, citizens stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential offices in objection to the newly incumbent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Their rage and fear came after the loss of former president Jair Bolsonaro and a false belief that the October 2022 election had been rigged.
Bolsonaro had steadily fostered suspicion against the integrity of Brazil’s voting system for years, even making such false claims on his 2022 campaign trail. After being ousted, his refusal to concede, alongside his previous claims of fraud, left his supporters reeling. Many demanded for months that the military step in and deny letting da Silva take office on Jan. 1st.
While the military did not listen to the demands, they did not completely rule out the possibility of vote rigging either. In spite of the fact that the Defense Ministry found no evidence of fraud during the election, one comment stated that “It is not possible to guarantee that the programs that were executed in the electronic voting machines are free from malicious insertions that alter their intended function.” No evidence has been found to support this conjecture either.
In the wake of growing suspicions and conspiracies, Bolsonaro supporters, known as “Bolsonaristas,” stormed the Three Powers Plaza (named after the three branches of governance located there) in a massive demonstration that soon turned violent.
The facts and events of the U.S. and Brazil riots
The similarities between January 6th, 2021 in the United States and January 8th, 2023 in Brazil are stark. Aside from the dates themselves, both these events signal serious declines in trust in democratic institutions.
In both instances, supporters overpowered police before entering capitol buildings, breaking windows, stealing items, and documenting their own crimes in the offices of elected legislators.
When capitol riots in the U.S. occurred, it was during the ceremonial certification of the election results and interrupted this important step before President Biden’s inauguration. On the other hand, in Brazil, President da Silva had already taken office nearly a week before. When demonstrators arrived, congress was not in session, nor was anyone within the buildings that Sunday.
This distinction, while slight, is significant to note because, during the time of the riots in Brazil, the actual transition of power had already occurred. In the case of the U.S., the symbolism surrounding the counting of ballots represented a key component of the democratic transition.
Moreover, in the U.S., citizens only targeted the Congress building, while Bolsonaristas also attacked the presidential palace and Supreme Court. This aligns further with claims that Bolsonaro had made during his term about the Supreme Court conspiring against him.
Of most importance, and concern, is how federal police responded initially in Brazil. In the case of the U.S., many sources reported that security forces had been unprepared for such escalations, but in Brazil, channels to “invade Congress” had formed on the apps WhatsApp and Telegram. These channels had gathered tens of thousands of followers. Bolsonaristas had formed groups across the country with the intention of renting buses to the capitol for “violent anti-government action.”
Just as former president Donald Trump had attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election result, so too had Bolsonaro engaged in making the same false claims over vote-rigging. Incidentally, Bolsonaro had come to be known as the “Trump of the Tropics” during his time in office. But false claims over vote rigging don’t end with these two heads, former aids, current politicians, and social media play a crucial role in fostering anti-democratic extremism.
Two years after the riots in the U.S., concerns over the legitimacy of Brazil’s election have been a contentious topic among far-right groups in the United States. These groups do not know anything about Brazilian politics, however, social media has connected the two continents to reinforce illegitimate beliefs about the accuracy of democratic processes.
During the 2020 U.S. election, conspiracies over the voting machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic had been extremely popular in supporting false claims of vote rigging. Now, these conspiracies have re-emerged but in the context of Brazil, circulating online and in far-right media, despite the fact that neither company’s products were used in Brazil. These lies have found their way onto Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Truth Social, and Gettr (alternative platforms popular on the right).
During the Brazilian riots, Bolsonaristas held a banner that stated “We want the source code” in both Portuguese, the nation’s most spoken language followed by Spanish, and English. This is a direct reference to the conspiracies spread first in the U.S. further emphasized by the languages of choice.
Moreover, dating back to October, Steven Bannon, former Trump aid, has been drawing parallels between the Brazilian election and the U.S. on his podcast. Sites like The Gateway Pundit have published blogs the morning after the first round of elections in Brazil about “MASSIVE fraud” and Matthew Tyrmand, a conservative activist, has repeatedly pushed the idea that Smartmatic machines were used in Brazil to tens of thousand on Twitter and Gettr.
According to Madeline Peltz the Director of Rapid Response at Media Matters, a left-leaning non-profit and media watchdog, “There’s a sympathetic audience for it in Brazil, and there’s certainly a sympathetic audience for it in the States. The building of a coalition between those two groups is really a win-win for Steve Bannon and the right-wing movement broadly.”
In Germany over a dozen were arrested in 2021 for planning to overthrow the government, while in Australia, the U.S.-centric conspiracies over machine-based voting fraud (even targeting Dominion again) had to be publicly debunked by the Electoral Commission.
In the end, far-right groups are taking inspiration in each other. Not from a shared set of goals or identities, but from their refusal to accept a candidate’s loss stemming from deep-seated anti-democratic stances. With social media to bridge distances and languages, it has become ever harder for governments to stop false election claims and silence the dangerous rhetoric of election deniers.
Democracy does not always equal or improve human rights. However, the values outlined in normative human rights frames overlap significantly with democratic governance. Democracy provides environments that are more likely to support human rights, as is the case with Articles 8 (right to national tribunals), 9 (arbitrary arrest), 10 (right to a fair trial), and 12 (arbitrary interference) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) just to name a handful.
In countries with weak rule of law, government institutions, and corruption, there is a 30 to 45% increase in the risk of civil war and a higher risk of extreme criminal violence. Any country can suffer from one or more of these factors which then threatens the personal security of people and their human rights.
According to Freedom House, a non-profit that conducts research on democracy, human rights, and political freedom, the last 16 years have been marked by a democratic decline globally. For example, President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador has undermined democratic institutions designed to check executive power. In Peru, riots for the past five weeks have demanded the government disband the legislature and president in favor of new elections, and in the most extreme case, that the military step in to rule. As the youngest democracy in Latin America (restored in 2001), Peru has long suffered poor living conditions which have made the population steadily view the government as corrupt, ineffective, and unfair. In fact, a 2021 poll from Vanderbilt University found that only 21% of the population was satisfied with democratic rule.
Brazil is a young democracy, previously under a military dictatorship between 1968 and 1985. Considering Bolsonaro’s praise of military rule in office, and the attack on all three democratic institutions, the riots on Jan. 8th signal a larger issue 一 a rejection of the democratic results overall.
While citizens always have the right to self-determination, this does not give anyone the right to inflict harm on someone’s personal security or engage in violent acts. In a democracy, tides are always able to change, switching between ideologies and agendas based on the popular vote of the nation. In the case of Chile, violent demonstrations did prompt a constitutional rewrite, however, once this democratic process began the violence ceased and turned towards peaceful demonstrations.
As President da Silva begins his new term, he will be faced with many challenges to unite Brazil. However, he has already taken major steps in the wake of the riots, arresting hundreds in a single day, beginning an investigation, and removing individuals from security positions.
For us, we must remain committed to the values of human rights, recognizing the inherent dignity of everyone and continually striving for equity and equality. To do this, we must have faith in the governments that ensure us these rights, and in the cases that do not, we must organize peacefully, research and reach out, and live our lives by our belief in human rights.
To learn more and get involved, visit these sites and blogs below:
After decades of systemic and societal discrimination, an array of hope burst through the clouds of despair for transgender individuals. Recently, greater acceptance of transgender individuals in modern culture has opened doors to accessible and evidence-based transgender healthcare. Budding healthcare infrastructure has helped transgender individuals transition and care for their changing bodies providing relief for the marginalized community. Healthcare professionals and teams of scientists worked for decades through societal judgement and the subsequent roadblocks to ensure that the transgender community had an improved chance at a healthy life as non-transgender individuals. However, increasing vitriol exacerbated by politicians has tightened restrictions for gender affirming healthcare across the United States.
In February 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton released a directive stating that gender transition therapies including hormone therapies, puberty blockers, or surgery given to minors can be investigated as child abuse and given criminal penalties. Officials, teachers, parents, nurses, and anyone involved in direct contact with children were required to report suspicions of such therapies, framing the act more as concern for children’s safety and innocence. Anyone found supporting or prescribing such treatment, including parents or healthcare providers, would be subject to child abuse investigations by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The agency was instructed to prioritize cases in which parents who provide their transgender children with gender-affirming care above all other child abuse cases. Strangely, the caseworkers were told to investigate regardless of whether the standard of sufficient evidence was met and to not record their investigation in writing.
Days after the directive was announced, the Texas Department of Protective and Family Services launched an investigation into a federal employee, a mother of a transgender daughter, after she inquired when the directive would be made effective. A federal judge blocked the investigation only 2 days later. In the immediate weeks following the directive‘s release, at least nine families were already facing child abuse investigations for supporting their transgender children in obtaining gender-affirming care. This past spring, the clouds in an otherwise tranquil sky began to blot out blossoming hope as intimidated healthcare providers canceled hormone prescriptions and the few existing transgender youth treatment facilities closed. Families clamored to find alternative sources of hormones and puberty blockers for their children. Some became afraid to claim the transgender label, many moved out of the state, and hundreds more were at home, fighting for their right to exist as their gender identity and as themselves.
In a statement to the Texas Tribune, U.S. Surgeon General stated that this directive interferes with the physician-patient relationship which has no place for religion, beliefs, or politics. Abbott’s directive and Paxton’s following opinion sparked intense backlash from the medical community for blatantly ignoring decades worth of research supporting early transitional care.
When children first learn that they are transgender, they face a physical and mental health disorder known as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a condition where individuals experience severe dissonance between the gender they identify as and the physical manifestations of their biological gender. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts often follow this sense of “not self” that plagues many adolescents as they begin to come out to the world with their new name and pronouns. To significantly improve the outcomes of transgender individuals, all major medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association support gender transition as an effective therapy. Transitioning includes gender-affirming hormonal therapy and puberty blockers. Hormonal therapy begins and allows for a smoother transition into the opposite gender while puberty blockers suppress the body’s natural maturation process to increase the amount of time children and their bodies have to transition into a new gender. In the meantime, individuals receive mental health support and preparation for a successful transition and in unfortunate cases, wait for legislation to increase access to gender affirming treatments.
The most prevalent medical reason for opposing gender transition is the possibility that a transgender individual will have regrets, because what is done cannot be undone easily. Although it is a valid concern, puberty blockers exist for children and individuals who are uncertain about their gender, because they provide ample time for the individual to choose not to change genders, if that is later realized. In addition, regrets are “extremely rare” and can be attributed to adverse social climates more than personal attitude. Proper mental health support and preparation are also important for a successful gender transition to recognize behavioral changes and tackle the paradoxical shared sentiment that transgender people are no longer welcome in conservative society.
Alabama and Florida Response
Governor Abbott’s attempt to restore conservative values in Texas is not a new phenomenon. Texas has seen several bills criminalizing medical care for transgender children which is reflective of a broader trend across the United States. In the past year alone, 21 states drafted bills to deny transgender medical care. Arkansas passed a bill making it illegal to prescribe puberty blockers and for insurance companies to cover transgender care. Other conservative states, such as Alabama, have taken Abbott’s directive as a green light and are preparing legislation to discourage transgender healthcare and marginalize the LGBTQ+ within their borders. Taking a slightly different approach, Governor DeSantis of Florida introduced what is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (House Bill 1557). Also known as the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, the bill was signed into law and passed by the Florida Senate in March 2022. This bill would effectively prevent gender identity and sexual orientation education in classroom discussion in Florida. Experts worry that the vague descriptions in the law indicate that it be used it to suppress all actions that remotely fall under the literal definition of sex and gender, leading to a dangerous slippery slope that may open a dark path of minority discrimination.
On April 8th 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law two bills preventing medical professionals from providing gender-affirming care and forcing individuals to use the restroom of their biological gender. In an unprecedented move, the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act makes arranging gender-affirming treatment including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery for children under 19 a felony with a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The second bill is culturally similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. This bill prohibits teaching or using words related to “sex” and “gender.”
A lawsuit filed by families of transgender children weeks after Abbot’s directive was announced resulted in an injunction from federal courts. Abbott vs Doe reached the Supreme Court in May 2022 during which the court ruled that Abbott had no authority to control child welfare officers and direct them to investigate providing transgender healthcare. The country released a sigh of relief, but the fight is not over. Stopping Abbot’s directive seems more akin to a pause on the right’s crusade against the transgender community than a stop.
Recent reports from The Washington Post also suggest that Attorney General Paxton attempted to collect gender marker changes and other transgender identifying information on driver’s licenses from the Texas Department of Public Safety in early 2022. Human Rights Campaign reports that Paxton’s office requested the names and license plates of these individuals later in the inquiry, as well. This news comes as a new shackle for transgender Texans. Some have changed back their gender identity on their licenses to the way it was prior. If not, police or other government officials would know of their transgender identity with the search of their name during traffic stops or unrelated incidents which could lead to dangerous discrimination.
To support the fight for transgender safety in Texas, support politicians and lawmakers who oppose legislation limiting transgender healthcare. Advocate for the reopening of the University of Texas’s youth transgender clinic, the only one of its kind in the southwestern United States, that closed last November. People in Texas and across borders can also donate Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which are organizations working to keep the injunction in place on Governor Abbott’s directive after AG Paxton filed an appeal against the federal court decision. They, in conjunction with the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas have also assembled the LGBTQIA+ Student Rights Toolkit which is a set of explanations and guidelines to understand Texas’s current plight as well as additional resources such as TX Trans Kids.
Peace in Haiti is akin to a momentary breath of fresh air. Gripped by the terror of political and humanitarian crises since its founding as the world’s first Black republic, Haiti is constantly reeling from one cause of instability to the next.
Today’s maelstrom of political inaction, violence, and human rights disasters in Haiti is rooted in a story that reaches back to its colonial past. After liberating itself as a French colony, Haiti was forced to pay reparations for the descendants of their French slave masters and lost “slave” property. Haiti took loans from French and American banks, in turn, providing more economic growth for French Banks. France essentially controlled the main bank of Haiti so much that the country became one of France’s largest financial conglomerates. When Haiti was unable to pay back American loans with interest, then President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion of Haiti that lasted 19 years. On top of economic repression, Haiti continuously experiences natural disasters that it is not equipped to recover from. Located in the Caribbean, Haiti experiences earthquakes and hurricanes at alarming frequencies each reintroduces economic, political, and health crises that compound existing tensions.
Coupled with military invasions from the United States and other developed countries for the sake of democratic civility, Haiti’s fate has been taken away from Haitians and toyed with by other powers. Haitian officials were also notoriously corrupt and either capitalized off their role as figureheads for invading powers or stealing from an already poor populace.
How did Haiti arrive here?
On July 21st, 2021, former Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated following a presidential term riddled with election fraud and economic disasters, including increases in gas prices that left the Haitian public seething. In recent decades, Political corruption and mishandling of national resources have depleted Haiti of economic strength, continuing to repress the middle class and poor. In August 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people, from which Haiti is still trying to recover.
After Moise’s death, his successor, President Ariel Henry, took charge of Haiti’s administration. Still, Haiti has fallen farther down a black hole with worsening crime rates, gang violence, inflation, healthcare crises, and fuel shortages. Backed by the Core Group, a conglomerate of countries including the United States, Canada, France, UN Representatives, and the Organization of American States, Henry has done little to alleviate Haiti’s crises.
In September 2022, Henry eliminated federal fuel subsidies to increase government funding, which caused gas prices to spike immediately. The G9 Family and Allies, a coalition of the most powerful gangs in Haiti, blocked public and government access to Varreux, Haiti’s largest fuel terminal, in retaliation to Henry’s new policy. International travel slowed and goods transportation to outer markets halted leading down a spiral of fear, financial misplacement, and dwindling basic necessities such as food, healthcare, hygiene, and safety.
The oil terminal, Varreux, holds almost 70% of Haiti’s fuel reserves; without it, every industry has taken a hit from this disruption. Local businesses, homes, hospitals, and schools shut down with no energy to serve the people. Many hospitals have already closed, and others are temporarily running on generators. Due to rising global inflation, the cost of flour, wheat, oil, shortening, and many other resources that the country imports on a deficit rose. To make matters worse, the G9 has also blocked Haiti’s ports, slowing the shipments of emergency fuel. Because of this, most Haitians cannot pay the difference inflation has burdened them with, and the government is also not in a position to help.
Gangs, either a part of G9 or not, control the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s economic hub and a major transportation route for resources and goods going in and out of the country. Violence blazes through every street of the capital city and beyond, so much so that businesses have shuttered, and people refuse to go out into the streets for fear of dying, being kidnapped, and becoming a victim of a massacre. Ultimately, food can’t be made and people can’t venture out to get food, leaving families starving. The U.N. has stated that Haiti is facing an acute hunger catastrophe, the worst the country has seen in decades, with over 4.7 million adults and children without adequate nutritional resources. Since gangs also control transport on the roadways, water tankers and other necessary resources are not reaching the communities where people have been desperately waiting, leading to water shortages.
Another emerging problem within Haiti is the current deadly cholera outbreak, an infectious disease carried by water-borne parasites that causes uncontrollable diarrhea and dehydration to the point of death, if left untreated. The depth of this crisis is exacerbated as Haiti was declared cholera-free after successfully controlling the disease for three years. But because access to clean water, hygiene, and healthcare is limited in the current civil unrest, the Haiti Ministry of Public Health and Population has reported 1,193 confirmed cases, 13,672 suspected cases, and 288 confirmed deaths. The most vulnerable are children 1 to 4 years of age. The first case was recorded in Cite Soleil, a coastal town overrun with gangs since Moise’s assassination last year, highlighting the impact of this untimely death on the health of those in Haiti.
In wartime, rape and sexual assault are employed by invading or territorial forces as tools for fear, power, and subjugation. Haitian gangs have perpetrated widespread rape and assault against all ages of women, children, and, less commonly, men. The United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) released a joint report detailing the above by conducting and analyzing over 90 interviews with incident victims and witnesses over the past two years to uncover information on the pervasiveness of collective rapes and public humiliation. Although this report is not exclusive to post-G9 control, the amount of sexual violence is unimaginable now.
Women and girls are afraid to cross the “frontlines,” the name ascribed to territories controlled by gangs, for necessities, because sex is viewed as a form of currency, voluntary or not. Families may encourage this form of “transactional behavior” to gain food, water, and other resources as their power lies in weapons, political power, geographical power, and fear. Another UN report describes women used as handles for high-ranking men in gangs. Victims can be raped and assaulted for hours in front of family or friends, and mutilation and executions are common afterward.
Over the past couple of weeks, United Nations Security Council members deliberated to formalize an action plan to weaken the gangs’ control of Haiti effectively. As a result, the Security Council adopted a targeted arms embargo, freezing assets and putting individuals, or those supporting the gangs in Haiti, on travel bans. These people include the leader of G9, Jean “Barbeque” Chezier, the perpetrator of much of the violence and humanitarian crisis that Haiti is experiencing.
Some Haitians remain uncomfortable with foreign intervention. Past interferences from the international community have shaped Haiti’s present, overcome with lawlessness and despair. Yet, despite the history, the West and some Haitians still believe their interference may be Haiti’s best bet. There is no objection that Haiti must be helped; its recent designation as an aid state, a nation at the mercy of foreign aid, further exacerbates the conditions of Haitian citizens. The question that the world and Haitians are pondering is: how can the world help without causing a chain reaction to an even worse fate than the present?
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
On this day, January 16, 2023, we remember a man known as the champion of human rights, Civil Rights Leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have been 94 years old had he lived. As the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King dedicated his life to advocating against racial discrimination and injustice. Through multiple death threats, the bombings of his family home, enduring physical attacks and being stabbed, until his assassination on April 4, 1968; Dr. King remained committed to the principle of non-violence. He was only 39 years old when he was killed.
Dr. King believed in the universality of human rights for all and acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What better way to begin a blog about “Human Rights Day” and the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, than on the day we commemorate the birth of a man who used his voice, and ultimately risked his life in pursuit of equal rights for all of humanity,
Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, at a General Assembly meeting in Paris. The UDHR was created to formalize a global standard for human rights across the world. Annually, on December 10th, a day which commemorates the passing of the UDHR, the UN acknowledges this day as Human Rights Day.
What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
In less than half a century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has come to be regarded as possibly the single most important document created in the twentieth century and as the accepted world standard for human rights. Referred to as a milestone document in the history of human rights, the UDHR is a collaborative effort of experts from the legal and cultural fields from around the world. The goal was to create a document which rights would be acknowledged globally and would serve as protection for all people living within any nation across the world.
Timeline for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
On April 25, 1945, on the heels of World War II, representatives from fifty nations met to “organize the United Nations” in San Francisco, California. On June 26, the representatives adopted the United Nations Charter, Article 68. The purpose of this article was for the General Assembly to “set up commissions in economic and social fields and for the promotion of human rights.”
In December 1945, Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed by then President Harry S. Truman to the United States delegation to the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, appointed Roosevelt to the commission and with the task of creating the formal Human Rights Commission (HRC).
In February 1946, a “nuclear” commission on human rights was created by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and its job was to recommend a “structure and mission for the permanent Human Rights Commission (HRC)”.
In April 1946, Roosevelt was nominated to be the chair of the HRC. The ECOSOC gave the HRC three tasks to complete: “a draft International Declaration, a draft covenant, and provisions for the implementation.”
On December 10, 1948, after convening with “representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris (General Assembly resolution 217 A).
One might think, we have come far in our efforts to afford equitable attainment of human rights to all people across the world. While we, collectively have made strides, we still have a long way to go to free the world of human rights violations. According to the Institute for Human Rights and Business, listed below are the top 10 human rights issues in 2022.
Redesigning supply chain
Personal Data Tracking & Tracing
Stranded at Sea
Office and Work Place
These issues are reflective of the ongoing and unprecedented impact of COVID-19.
How to Participate in Human Rights Day on December 10th and beyond
Your college experience is full of opportunities to grow and learn, academically, socially and even politically. You will meet people from varying backgrounds and having lived experiences which may be foreign, pun intended, to you. So on Human Rights Day, what can you do to support the initiative? Well, the college interns at the United Nations Association, came up with 10 Ways to support Human Rights Day. Hopefully, you will be inspired to do one.
1. Pass a student government resolution: Work with a member of your student government or student council to pass a resolution in honor of Human Rights Day.
2. Write an op-ed or article in your school’s newspaper: School newspapers can be a great place to talk about the importance of human rights around the world.
3. Stage a public reading: Set up a microphone in your student center or, if the weather’s right, outside and read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in full.
4. Set up a free expression wall: Set up a blank wall or giant piece of paper and encourage your friends to write about what human rights mean to them.
5. Make a viral video about human rights day: Film your UNA chapter kicking it Gangnam style to celebrate human rights and put the video online: it’ll go viral in a matter of minutes.
6. Start a Facebook campaign: Encourage your friends to change their profile pictures to an individualized Human Rights Day banner.
7. Hand out t-shirts and other gear: If you have the funds, buy t-shirts, sunglasses, or even 90’s-style sweatbands featuring a slogan about human rights to give to your classmates.
8. Coordinate an extra-credit lecture: Work with professors in the history department, the law school, or the international relations program to host a lecture about human rights, and work with other professors in the department to get attendees extra credit—trust us, your friends will thank you.
9. Hold a candlelight vigil or other commemorative event: While it’s important to have fun, human rights are serious business. Consider holding a vigil or other event to commemorate those who have suffered human rights abuses and those whose human rights are still violated.
10. Hold a talent show, dance, or party: Big social events are a great way to bring awareness to an issue, so why not have a human rights-themed party? Free admission if you dress up like Eleanor Roosevelt or Ban Ki-Moon. Also, here are two organizations you can support: Free and Equal and He for She.
Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela once said that, “To deny people their human rights is to deny their very humanity.” For the past 75 years, the UDHR has existed to ensure that our human rights are not violated, and if they are that there is accountability on a global stage. We all deserve the right to live freely and uninhibited, the freedom to love who we want and practice the religion of our choice. We must work together as a humanity to ensure that protecting our human rights continues to be a priority.
Let us work together to transform his dream into reality. Beyond this nation of the United States, let us work collectively to ensure equal and equitable rights for ALL women, men, and gender nonbinary humans. Protecting human rights was a priority for Dr. King. On November 3, 1967, just a few miles away from this campus of UAB, Dr, King wrote his infamous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to the Clergymen.
Martin Luther King Jr. in Jefferson County Jail, Birmingham, Alabama, November 3, 1967 Fair use image“While confined here in the Birmingham jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here… Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Dr. King reminds us that “The time is always right to do what is right” and that we as a humanity must ensure that the single garment of destiny is threaded with equal rights for all humans for this is the only true way forward. In the spirit of Dr. King, we must work to ensure that the rights of ALL humans are acknowledged, respected and protected by law, and not just on Human Rights Day, but every day, and everywhere across the globe.
My mother is the youngest of 5 Indian daughters, all of whom are PhDs, professors, researchers, and educators. My grandfather, a lawyer, raised her, and like clockwork, he repeated that knowledge is akin to clay, a necessary foundation for anyone’s house of decisions, thoughts, ideologies, and actions. Because of this, nothing was more important than my education and, later, my brother’s education.
The right to knowledge that my upbringing revolved around is synonymous with the right to choose, the freedom of expression, and the right to read – all rights outlined directly or indirectly in the United States Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court decisions justified by the First Amendment.
Despite the First Amendment’s protection, book bans in schools are threatening this right to knowledge for students. Within the last 2 years, books of all literary and historical acclaim, including modern literature, have been banned at an unprecedented rate in an alarmingly organized manner in public school districts.
When people lose their right to this knowledge and succumb to political pressure, it will be a day in history representing humanity losing its most powerful tool to stand up for justice.
Like all examples of institutional limitations, the most influential books, which have the potential to cause revolutions, are also the most restricted. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was banned in the Southern United States in 1852 and is traced back as the first example of a book ban. Stowe, a ferocious abolitionist in the North, wrote this book prior to the Civil War to rally abolitionists and swing individuals against the South’s slavery. Since the Constitution was written, Northerners decried the South’s defense of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a powerful tool that amplified the voices of abolitionists across the country; they believed that slavery was a legal injustice in the Constitution that needed to be removed. Plantation owners, however, were able to pull strings and remove the book from circulation in the South, fearing the loss of economic and racial security that slavery gave them.
One of the first instances of controlling students’ access to books was after the Civil War. The Southern United States restricted access to textbooks that painted the South’s intentions and actions poorly amid the Civil War. An advocacy group in the South referred to as The United Daughters of the Confederacy felt that the control of what information their children were learning during school was beholden to the rights of parents. In 1954, they removed The Rabbits’ Wedding, a novel centered around a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit. They feared it would normalize interracial marriages, a taboo act at the time.
In direct opposition to school censorship, the Supreme Court ruled that school boards “cannot remove books from school libraries just because they dislike the ideas contained in those books” in the landmark 1982 Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico case. The Island Trees Union Free School district removed titles it deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” In conjunction, the Supreme Court also ruled that students retained their First Amendment rights to the freedom of speech and expression in school in the Tinker v. Des Moines case. If we follow the court, censorship is illegal in the U.S.
Over 1600 books have been banned nationwide. Most of them are fiction and illustrate the lives of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. In the past, book bans originated from a small scattering of parents making personal requests to remove a few books from circulation or restrict their children from reading them. Today, the opposition is still a minority, but they are organized with structured advocacy groups taking center stage at school board meetings demanding specific books to be removed from circulation. Some of the most banned books, like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is a novel centered around a black teen who witnesses her black friend get shot by a white police officer. Another is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which discusses the life of a Native-American teenager aspiring to be a cartoonist in an all-white school. Essentially, the most targeted books discuss life outside the white picket fence of middle-class white suburbia.
What do supporters of book bans hope to achieve?
Ellen Hopkins, the author of the Young Adult poetry verse book Crank, is one of the most banned authors in the United States. She feels that parental rights and concern for children’s safety are a smokescreen behind anti-book advocacy groups’ motivation. Hopkins implores that books provide kids with the opportunity to solace in information about their identity and find consolation that they are not alone. They also prepare children for life in the real world by exposing them to situations they might otherwise encounter. Thus, books are a tool for the development of holistic decision-making skills. Removing these opportunities leaves kids with little chance to make better decisions when confronted with situations they are not familiar with. If the child is BIPOC or queer, removing books that have become championed narratives from the respective community isolates them and invalidates their experiences.
Parents often find these books on lists circulating online and present them to their children’s school districts claiming there is offensive or inappropriate content that compromises their children’s innocence. PEN America has found that parents who appear at the board of education meetings en masse and are armed with arbitrary lists of books have rarely even read the books to understand their significance. Descriptions of “obscenity” are affixed to titles as a fearmongering tactic to cultivate reprobatory characterizations of these books as they quickly make their way through advocacy groups’ websites and Facebook to radicalize those that come in contact with these types of posts. Such inflammatory language, which is not considered legally acceptable, elevates a small minority of individuals into a vocal majority to force school boards to comply.
Solutions to Book Bans
Banned Books Week stands as a beacon of hope against the dark wave of censorship. This week celebrates suppressed voices in literature and amplifies authors’ messages through community outreach, and fosters national collaborations. However, progress is made in consistent steps, not leaps.
On a smaller scale, there are many tools you can use in your community to combat literary censorship. Community members, feed off each other’s ideologies, and to mellow the extreme views of this vocal minority, the first step is to provide outlets for conversation. The vocal minority advocating for book bans can be confronted and overcome when faced with the majority opposed to them or their thinking. You can make your presence felt at school board meetings. Show up and voice your opinion and advocate for others to do so over social media. Vote for your local boards of education, library boards, and city council elections. If you want to, run for these board positions yourself or directly appeal or lobby your legislative representatives and defend the importance of all content in books. Unite Against Book Bans also provides communities with toolkits that include essential questions and moderate answers that consider the argument of parental rights while protecting the First Amendment.
In all, I am grateful for the circumspection that my mother and my family’s push for education provided me with. Not only hard skills, but also the ability to think for myself, to derive my own opinions, and to be mindful of how I act and react to new information. My freedom to read and speak gave me a powerful voice that must be available and fostered in everyone.
WBHM, the publicly sponsored NPR affiliate located in Birmingham, Alabama, published a podcast this year, focusing on the atrocious realities of prisons in Alabama. Titled, “Deliberate Indifference,” the host, Mary Scott Hodgin, takes the listeners through an in-depth journey of the correctional facilities in Alabama, trying to better understand the root causes of the realities the people behind bars face on a daily basis. A health and science writer for the WBHM since 2018, Mary Scott Hodgin has been researching this crisis that Alabama prisons have been facing since 2019. The resulting masterpiece is her podcast, “Deliberate Indifference.”
This blog will highlight some of the themes the limited series focused on, and because this topic is very nuanced, I would not be able to do justice to this discussion in one blog. Hence, this will be a two-part series, where the first part focuses on the background of the prison system as a whole, and the historical context of Alabama’s prison system. The second part will focus on the human rights violations happening in Alabama’s prisons today, including the human rights violations existing in Alabama’s prisons today and the past, and how one can ensure that prisoners are treated with dignity and respect.
I strongly recommend that you please check out the podcast if you have not already because there are many details that I may not be able to get to in this blog or the next one that is worth knowing about. After all, this story is one close to home, and the first step towards finding a solution is having knowledge of the problem at hand. With that being said, let us dive in.
The Origins of the Prison Systems in the Southern States of America
Alabama prisons are recently under federal investigation for the increased violence and sexual assaults that have been rampant for years. This is not the first time the state’s penal system has been under investigation by the federal government. In 2017, Alabama prisons were under federal investigation for the inadequate mental health care offered to the inmates. Before focusing on the details of the prison system, some background information is necessary to fully comprehend how the system got to the place they are in right now. In the podcast, after interviewing various experts on the subject, Hodgin speaks at length about the history of prisons in Alabama. In the 1970s, following a class action lawsuit on the conditions of the prisons in Alabama, Frank Johnson, a federal judge ruled a federal takeover of the Alabama prison system until conditions improved.
As reported in “Deliberate Indifference”, Wayne Flint, a retired Auburn history professor insists that the history of Alabama’s prison system goes further back, starting with the Antebellum era. Flint observes that there were two cultures during that era in the South–a frontier culture and a plantation culture. The frontier culture was only available for people considered “white,” and settlements were disputed with violence. The plantation culture, which was mostly meant for African Americans (who were set free after centuries of slavery following the Union’s victory in the Civil War), focused on the question, “How do you control freedmen?” This was made possible by the loophole included in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery with the exception of imprisoned populations. This meant that new laws …
New laws were created, targeting African Americans, making it possible to arrest and imprison them. These new laws, known as the Black Codes, were obnoxious, to put it kindly, and very racially inspired. The Black Codes included broad vagrancy laws, meaning that any person caught unemployed, begging, or unhoused (to name a few) would be put into prison.
Of course, though there were many white people dealing with poverty at the time, the only ones imprisoned for this were African Americans. Additionally, during the Reconstruction Era, following the defeat of the Confederacy, the Southern states were struggling to rebuild their society and economy. They required cheap labor, and people willing to work long, grueling hours. All this was true at a time when Southerners were not ready to integrate with the then newly freed African Americans and did not want them to have any political power to fight the oppressive conditions they dealt with. Before the Civil War, Flint points out that the majority of people imprisoned, (99%), were White; after the war, Alabama’s prison population was made up mostly of African Americans, (90%).
The Private Sector Benefits from the Prison System
One proposed “solution” to this supposed issue was the convict leasing system. African Americans were arrested for petty crimes, placed in prison, and forced to work with little to no compensation. Due to their incarceration, the inmates’ official records denied them the right to vote. This meant that not only did these states plunge the freed people back into a form of slavery, but they also managed to take away their political power, even after they had served time. Alabama was a state that indulged in this practice. The state did not want to raise taxes, but housing incarcerated people cost the state money. Their solution was to lend prisoners to private companies which paid the state to use the prisoners’ labor; the companies did not pay the prisoners, though, in any form of compensation.
This system became extremely profitable, especially during the Industrial Revolution, which required physical labor. This is how the mining town of Brookside, Alabama grew, and this is the system employed at the famous steel company, Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham. The conditions in which they worked were atrocious during the day, and prisoners were chained to the beds they slept in at night. This system required them to work many days underground with no protection and very little sustenance. Although there were both Black and White prisoners leased under this system, the Black prisoners were treated far worse than their White counterparts. Both Black and White prisoners, if they refused to work, would be beaten, abused, refused access to basic needs, and even could be denied parole. Prisoners were violently abused for any wrongdoings and because much of the public had no knowledge of these activities, the prisoners became an invisible population and were forgotten about.
That was until 1924 when a white prisoner by the name of James Knox was murdered by being dropped into a vat of boiling water for working too slowly. This incident took place in Birmingham, Alabama. Initially, it was reported that Knox’s death was a suicide or an accident. An investigation later revealed not only was James Knox’s death a deliberate act of punishment but also that, following his death, Knox was injected with poison to artificially indicate a suicidal or accidental death.
While this incident is certainly not the only incident that has ever occurred, nor is it the most heinous, this incident, along with other similar incidents where the victim was white, brought attention to the issue of prisoner abuse, and helped put an end to much of the convict leasing, at least leasing to private companies. Unfortunately, the use of convict leasing continued to take place in Alabama and other places even after this case was ruled, but inmates were to be used only for government projects like working on highways and working on farms and cattle ranches. One piece of good news is that in 2022, Alabama voters, along with four other states, voted to close the loophole in the 13th amendment, calling for the state to stop forcing prisoners to work for free. Many other states have shown interest in following this momentum.
The First Time Alabama’s Prisons Experienced a Federal Takeover
In the 1970s, lawsuits were filed against the state of Alabama, the State Department of Corrections, and the governor at the time, George Wallace. Upon further examination of the prisons’ conditions in Alabama, the courts ruled that Alabama prisons were functioning under inhumane conditions and authorized the federal government to step in to address the issues they found in the prisons. There was extreme violence and human rights abuses, and Judge Johnson declared that if Alabama prisons did not comply with his rulings, he would have several of the prisons closed.
Judge Johnson argued that “A state is not at liberty to afford its citizens only those constitutional rights which fit comfortably within its budget.” Judge Johnson provided details on what was expected to change, including improvements in educational opportunities, employment opportunities (with pay), better medical care, sufficient meals, and more space for each imprisoned individual. Governor Wallace, however, denied that there was any problem with Alabama’s prison systems, argued that the involvement of the federal government was an overreach that jeopardized states’ rights, and insisted that this approach by the federal government was disrespectful to the victims of crimes. Unfortunately, Judge Johnson did not see the case to the end; he accepted a higher position, passing on his work to his successor, and in 1988, the federal government ended its oversight of the Alabama prisons.
An unsettling reality becomes clear when comparing the most recent findings and the findings outlined by Judge Johnson – both reports are unnervingly similar, meaning that not much has changed since then. In fact, the issues outlined by Judge Johnson in the 1970s have only exacerbated as the prison population continues to grow, both in Alabama and in America as a whole.
The Racialized Prison System and Its Impacts
The main issue that Hodgin consistently points out in reference to Alabama’s prisons is the overcrowding of prisoners. This issue leads to an entire range of other issues within the prison system, which will be discussed at length in the next blog. For now, the focus is primarily on how this overcrowding issue emerged in the first place.
Richard Nixon introduced his idea to wage a “War on Drugs” during the 1970s, with the intention of imprisonment for addicts rather than medical attention and/or treatment. His war had intended targets from the beginning. In an interview conducted years later, Nixon’s own aide stated that their real targets were the leftists who were against the Vietnam War and African Americans in general, but blatantly targeting them would have been constitutionally impossible. Therefore, the War on Drugs was a way for Nixon’s administration to associate marijuana with the leftist “hippies” and heroine with African Americans to disrupt their communities and arrest their leaders. Even though both the white population and black and brown populations used similar amounts of drugs, black and brown communities were disproportionately targeted and imprisoned. Hence, the unequal War on Drugs was implemented, driving up the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent crimes like possessing marijuana and heroin. This contributed massively to the increase in prison populations nationwide, including in Alabama, and this practice has continued to exist to this day, over fifty years since its implementation.
Additionally, while waging his War on Drugs, Nixon also insisted that we must be “Tough on Crimes” in order to justify his war. This approach called for longer sentencing, (even for nonviolent crimes), harsher punishments, mandatory minimums set for certain crimes, and three-strikes rules, all in an attempt to lower crime rates in the nation. The mandatory minimums set mandatory sentencing years for certain crimes, such as drug possession, giving the judges less flexibility to sentence on a case-by-case basis. The three-strikes law, or the habitual felony offender act, (the one in Alabama was passed in 1977 but other states have similar laws in place), sentenced a person to life in prison without parole after their third offense, whether their offenses are violent or nonviolent. The War on Drugs, the tough-on-crime initiative, and the various sentencing laws that followed this era exacerbated the overcrowding of prison populations, including in Alabama.
Nixon’s successor, Ronald Reagan continued Nixon’s War on Drugs, and his wife, Nancy Reagan, started the DARE campaign to teach students across the nation to “Say No to Drugs.” In an attempt to fearmonger the public to support the war on drugs and the tougher sentencing laws, the media played a big role in framing the issue of crime to be a result of increased drug use, a misleading fact that has yet to be proven. In fact, many studies today show that wherever there are high levels of poverty, there will also be an increase in crime rates.
With all this being said, there has been a growing movement in Alabama from both the Republicans and Democrats, to repeal the Habitual Felony Offender Act, citing the overcrowding issues and sentencing that doesn’t fit the crime. The House Judiciary Committee of Alabama approved this repeal in 2021, and the legislation was set to be voted on by the full House. After much research and various combinations of google searches, I found out that the repeal was halted on April 7th of 2022, labeled “dead/failed/vetoed” on the bill tracker website. While this is not the best news, by spreading more awareness of the impact this single piece of legislation has had on many lives in the state, there is hope that with increased support, it may pass in the future. However, this alone will not be enough to address the issues facing Alabama prisons.
In the upcoming blog, we will focus on the prison conditions, details of the 2017 reports and 2020 reports, how the pandemic has exacerbated these issues, and some ways to move forward. In the meantime, listen to “Deliberate Indifference” by Mary Scott Hodgin, and stay tuned for the next part of this series.
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